By Joe Berney
Seventy years ago, the American poet Langston Hughes wrote about Black lives and Black discontent in Harlem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
In the decades since, we’ve witnessed multiple uprisings within communities of color, not only because of dreams deferred, but also because of continued inequities and violent acts of injustice.
Millions of people are now engaging in multi-racial, multi-generational, non-violent protests because they want the dream deferred no longer. Even during this pandemic, the risk assumed by many of those protesting feels less than the risk of maintaining systemic inequities as they now exist, and arguably it’s the one of the most patriotic things we can do to make things better.
The coronavirus has killed more than 130,000 Americans in a few short months, yet poverty alone is responsible for over 300,000 deaths annually in this country, a travesty in its own right.
At the same time, ironically, we all yearn for normalcy, to get back to work, to get our kids back to school. The mixed messages, lack of a coordinated federal response, much less leadership, on this pandemic has been stultifying. The buck stops at the lowest level of government, exactly the wrong place in a public health crisis.
Nonetheless, one month ago Lane County, per the governor’s instructions, began Phase 2 of re-opening. Though we’re lucky to have remained relatively untouched by the virus itself, that may be changing. We remain painfully aware that testing is insufficient, that the test-based isolate/contact/trace infrastructure is inadequate, and that there is likely no effective vaccine that will be available this calendar year despite political rhetoric to the contrary.
But let the protests continue, keep them safe, peaceful and a demonstration in how to self-police. Let us work for real change in our economic system, bringing back the middle class and achieving true full employment. Let’s redefine a good job to include living wages and upward mobility. And let’s change the measures of what a “healthy economy” and “success” look like.
Let us eliminate the notion that people exist to serve the economy and awaken to the fact that the economy exists to serve the needs of people — of all people, not just the small percentage the economy has been contrived to work very well for.
As we reform policing in this country, let us understand the context of modern law enforcement, which began after the Civil War as a mechanism to serve the power structure and control freed slaves.
As we hear our environment cry out its imbalance with ever-increasing extreme weather events and their impacts on life at all levels, let us understand our role and become better stewards of the Earth and its bounty.
The coronavirus is not the only out-of-control pandemic at this time. War. Racism. Poverty. Hunger. Deteriorating public infrastructure. Lack of health and mental health care for all. All of these a human service peace economy could help heal.
The final chapters of my life are the first chapters of my life as an elected official, a particular sub-species of human for whom I have always had a degree of contempt. We must keep our elected officials accountable to all the people, not just the few who wield money and power. I now see the urgency of this first-hand.
I am not a fan of career politicians from either side of the aisle. Some calculate every move and every word with the intent of accruing more popularity to feed an insatiable greed for power and attention. And they often play us against each other for their own purposes at this critical crossroads in history when we need to build common ground, not destroy it. A united front is necessary to combat the enemies of democracy: greed, fear, ignorance; distraction, confusion and illusion.
We are called upon to no longer be complacent, but to fulfill an American dream that is real, not just for some but for all. Hughes’ foresight accurately predicted what happens when dreams are deferred. People explode. Add a worldwide pandemic to the equation and economies can unravel, democracies can die. We must work harder than ever to make good on the dreams and promises of our institutions and the democratic way of life.
We have no time to continue deferring the dream. Here and now we must acknowledge Hughes’ insight, realize Martin Luther King’s dream, demonstrate true patriotism and bring our world into balance. It might just be our best, and our last, chance.
Joe Berney is vice-chair of the Lane County Board of Commissioners.